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Jerome Bruner's expansive mind


Jerome Bruner, the 'Cognitive Revolution' and behaviourism
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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Jerry Bruner was, and is, a legendary figure, because in the 1950s he was one of the founders of the... what is usually called the cognitive revolution. At that time, behaviourism and BF Skinner and conditioned reflexes were all the rage. One looked at stimulus and response. There was no reference to the inside of an organism. There was no concept of organisms having an inside. It’s really bizarre how something so counterintuitive could have... could have had such power. One of the great early critics of BF Skinner was Chomsky, and beside Chomsky’s first book on syntactic structures, he wrote an... an annihilating review of Skinner and Skinner’s work, and that whole orientation – very audacious, not to say chutzpadik, thing for a young man to do. Kick... kicking the god on his pedestal. And at the same time, Jerry Bruner and his colleagues were looking at mind. The word mind did not exist for Pavlov and BF Skinner.

I think at that time Jerry was in Cambridge. His life on the whole was spent – well, what one would have called his life had he died at a normal age – would have been spent between Cambridge and Harvard. But at, I don’t know, but at 95 plus, Jerry is still going strong. I first encountered him because he wrote a wonderful, generous review of A Leg to Stand On. And that gave me a leg to stand on. It hugely encouraged me. It enabled me to go on when I had been hamstrung by a hateful review of the book in England. Jerry and I became friends. The generational difference between us didn’t seem to matter that much, and now I’m approaching 80, it... it matters even less. Jonathan Miller was a very close friend as well, and there was one wonderful dinner, I think, when the two of us were there with him.

Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) was born in England. Having obtained his medical degree at Oxford University, he moved to the USA. There he worked as a consultant neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital where in 1966, he encountered a group of survivors of the global sleepy sickness of 1916-1927. Sacks treated these patients with the then-experimental drug L-Dopa producing astounding results which he described in his book Awakenings. Further cases of neurological disorders were described by Sacks with exceptional sympathy in another major book entitled The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat which became an instant best seller on its publication in 1985. His other books drew on his rich experiences as a neurologist gleaned over almost five decades of professional practice. Sacks's work was recognized by prestigious institutions which awarded him numerous honours and prizes. These included the Lewis Thomas Prize given by Rockefeller University, which recognizes the scientist as poet. He was an honorary fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and held honorary degrees from many universities, including Oxford, the Karolinska Institute, Georgetown, Bard, Gallaudet, Tufts, and the Catholic University of Peru.

Listeners: Kate Edgar

Kate Edgar, previously Managing Editor at the Summit Books division of Simon and Schuster, began working with Oliver Sacks in 1983. She has served as editor and researcher on all of his books, and has been closely involved with various films and adaptations based on his work. As friend, assistant, and collaborator, she has accompanied Dr Sacks on many adventures around the world, clinical and otherwise.

Tags: Cambridge University, Harvard University, A Leg to Stand On, Jerome Bruner, BF Skinner, Noam Chomsky, Ivan Pavlov, Jonathan Miller

Duration: 2 minutes, 58 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012